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U.S. Hands Stained with Bolivian Blood

Bolivian Election May Affect Expeditionary Task Force

July 2, 2002


Sanchez de Lozada and Reyes Villa Qualify in Bolivian Election after U.S. Intervenes

* United States continues to fund its mercenary military group, the highly controversial Expeditionary Task Force

* The ETF has been accused of at least four killings and more than 50 instances of clubbings, beatings and theft over the past eight months

* U.S. Ambassador Rocha directly interferes in Bolivian balloting

* Bolivia awaits decision on whether free markets or a mixed economy will reign

* Bolivia's stagnant economy and social protests put the country at risk

Sanchez de Lozada and Reyes Villa Qualify for Runoff

Nine presidential candidates ran in Bolivia's presidential race. After the polls closed on Sunday, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada of the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement and a former Bolivian president is estimated to have 21.7 percent of the vote, while Manfred Reyes Villa of the New Republican Force attracted 20.2 percent. These projections are based on unofficial numbers from 93 percent of polling stations. Because no candidate received more than 50 percent of the ballot, the fate of the two top candidates lies with the national Congress, who will choose one of them to be the next Bolivian president on August 6. Surprisingly, Evo Morales of the Movement to Socialism Party and leader of peasant coca-leaf growers took third place and received an unexpectedly high 17.9 percent of the ballots. In fourth place, Jaime Paz Zamora, a social democrat, obtained 16 percent of the votes. In light of his opposition toward U.S. anti-drug funding, Morales's victory over Zamora may bring Bolivia one step closer to terminating its continued tolerance of the ETF.

U.S. Hands Stained with Bolivian Blood

The Expeditionary Task Force was created in January of 2001 and is comprised of 1,500 former Bolivian soldiers who are paid and trained under the auspices of the United States embassy in La Paz. Officials describe the soldiers as a group of reservists within the regular Bolivian army. A retired colonel claimed that the Force was being made up of "the most reactionary, racist and notoriously discriminatory officers." The ETF members earn about 40 percent more money than do regular enlisted Bolivian soldiers, and the salaries are distributed through a private financial company.

The ETF has been charged with at least four killings and more than 50 instances of clubbings, beatings and theft over the past eight months.

Protestor Casimiro Huanca Colque was shot and killed in a federation building at close range as he was speaking out against the lack of markets for alternative development products. Similarly, Nilda Escobar died when security forces fired a tear gas canister into her head. Ramon Perez, a guide for visiting journalists, was shot and killed by the Joint Task Force as well. Between November 2001 and February 2002, ten coca growers as well as four members of the security forces were killed, and over 350 protesters were injured or detained. These actions indicate that the ETF is willing to go to arms length to eradicate the coca leaf, even if it means shutting down the livelihood of impoverished Bolivians as well as violating their constitutional rights. Particularly worrisome is the reality that the ETF is a private military force that is not under the official rules of either U.S. or Bolivian military.

Under "Plan Dignity" (Strategic Plan for the Fight Against Narco-Trafficking 1998-2002), the State Department's International Narcotics Control Program (INC) funds 12 distinct counter-narcotics programs in Bolivia. These are grouped into four groups: Narcotics Law Enforcement and Eradication, Alternative Development Incentives, Rule of Law and Administration of Justice, and Program Development. The first group assists Bolivian police units and supports the Bolivian military.

The Expeditionary Task Force consists of personnel salaried through the INC who are not part of either the police units or military. The men in the ETF have had no training in crowd control or respecting human rights. The irregularity of the ETF is what most concerns human rights groups. Bolivia's Permanent Human Rights Assembly issued a denouncement of the irregularity of the forces as of January 30, 2002, and Ana Maria Romero de Campero, head of the official Human Rights Ombudsman's office, seconded the condemnation of these para-military units. In effect, Washington has hired a private force of gun slingers who cater to U.S. offices rather than to the Bolivian military's chain of command. By permitting this force to operate, Bolivian authorities are permitting foreign military force, that happens to be composed of Bolivians, to operate in an autonomous manner on its soil.

The ETF's Grim Record

A judge within the central region of Chapare issued an arrest warrant for Colonel Aurelio Burgos Blacutt (School of the Americas Graduate 1974 and ETF Commander) for killing coca grower Marcos Ortiz on January 29, 2002. Although his case was later dismissed by a military tribunal, it was never brought before a Bolivian civil court because trials of human rights violations are not permitted in either Bolivian civil chambers or international courts.

In light of the Task Force's reported human rights violations, one would hope that it has at least established an impressive record of eliminating cocaine. According to the Bolivian government, its goal has been met, with Bolivian Interior Minister Jose Luis Lupo maintaining that his country eradicated 95 percent of illegal coca crops in Chapare. Furthermore, in a meeting with European community representatives, Social Defense Minister Oswaldo Antezana reported that 53,000 hectares of coca have been destroyed preventing the production of 300 tons of cocaine annually. Bolivian authorities reported that between 1997 and 2002, their forces all told had conducted 23,000 operations in which they destroyed more than 4,900 cocaine factories, 6,500 maceration pits and more than 54 laboratories used to manufacture drugs.

However, the coca eradication results may not be long-lasting. Drug traffickers now can buy cocaine produced in Peru and transport it through Bolivia to Brazil. Furthermore, some Bolivian coca crops continue to be replanted because they provide an income, despite the government's best eradication efforts. Coca growers in Bolivia claim that as long as the crop is successful, it will continue to be replanted, and reporters claim that they have found indigenous women hiding their coca crop among banana trees.

Robert Laserna, a Latin American drug specialist, discussed the eradication program with BBC News, saying, "It's very hard to say that coca can be eradicated... Are they eradicating drug consumption? If not, people will start using other drugs and we will go on to see new drug wars in other parts of the country. And Bolivia will be left with widespread corruption and poverty."

U.S. Ambassador Interferes in the Election

Bolivia's election was a flashback to the U.S. intervention in Nicaragua's presidential elections when the U.S. ambassador and a visiting high State Department official stated that the election of the Sandista candidate, Daniel Ortega, could complicate the Washington relationship with Managua.

The Bolivian election occurred after a last-minute intervention by U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, Manuel Rocha. He indirectly warned the country that the U.S. might withdraw its funding if Socialist Evo Morales was elected:

"I would like to remind the Bolivian electorate that if they choose those who want Bolivia once again to become a major exporter of cocaine, that this result will endanger the future of the U.S. aid." Morales's position as leader of the coca growers and his pledge to stop paying foreign debts and to nationalize foreign industries inflamed the embassy and was almost certainly behind Rocha's threat. Believing that Rocha's warning could only increase his popularity, Morales publicly thanked Rocha and later responded in a televised statement, "Help is not needed. Let them [U.S.] leave. It would be better for the ambassador to remove... the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration prematurely from the Chimore Base... We do not need a repression problem or aid for repression. That aid only brings about a confrontation among Bolivians." Morales then commented that Washington's implied threats were an attack on Bolivia's sovereignty.

President Quiroga as well as the remaining candidates and the National Election Board also condemned Rocha's interference. Reyes Villa asked, "Why did he [Rocha] say this? It was because past governments have made us submissive. We are a dependent country, that's clear." The National Election Board "found the public declarations inappropriate." Other diplomats were also surprised by Rocha's undemocratic comments, and one, quoted from the Houston Chronicle, stated, "It was like the beginning of the return to the 1980's, to the days of Reagan when the United States was seen in the region as an arrogant enemy."

Rocha justifies his opposition toward Morales because the latter heads the coca growers federation and is particularly sensitive to the activities of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which manages the ETF mercenaries. Ultimately, Rocha's intervention like that of Assistant Secretary of State Lino Guitterez in Nicaragua before him, reveals the bold ideological imprints of Assistant-Secretary of State for Latin America, Otto Reich, and his hardline ideology.

New President Chooses Bolivian Path Amid Protests

It seems that U.S. Ambassador Rocha's warning helped Morales, since the candidate advanced from anywhere from four percent in pre-election polls to 17.9 percent in unofficial polls after the election. George Ann Potter, human rights advocate and COHA senior advisor, stated, "It is not surprising that Morales did so well who has long been stationed in Cochabamba, despite...Rocha's interventions." This advancement at the polls may give coca growers more confidence as a result of being part of the MAS political party, and therefore more anti-coca protests may follow. Laserna concurred, "[Morales] still has strong influence in the peasants' unions of the Chapare region. If the new government and the influential U.S. embassy ignore the increased political power of the coca producers, we will see social unrest and increased conflicts."

Hard Times Ahead for Bolivia

If he wins, Sanchez de Lozada will have to deal with this heightened social unrest and crippling levels of poverty that afflict at least eight out of ten Bolivians. Sanchez de Lozada, owner of Bolivia's largest mining company and one of Bolivia's wealthiest individuals, is responsible for much of Bolivia's recent capitalization. He has pledged to create jobs based on a road construction program and on an extension of the potable water plans. His program is seen by many as the most conservative way to pull Bolivia out of its current crisis.

Second-place candidate, Manfred Reyes Villa, former mayor of Bolivia's third largest city, Cochabamba, and a former military attaché, has latched on to Latin America's backlash against market reforms. In a time when Bolivia's economy is in a crisis, he has pledged to increase the size of the military and to dramatically increase state spending to improve the economy. He alleges to reconcile counter-narcotics measures and the interests of the Indian and mixed-race majority, who are often involved in the drug trade.

He claims to attack cocaine, not coca, which has medicinal purposes. During the next few weeks Sanchez de Lozada and Reyes Villa will be feverishly negotiating with the former candidates who lead political parties in Congress, in an attempt to form a ruling majority and thereby win next month's race in the legislative body. Morales's Congressional representatives will be of critical importance.

The Bolivian Congress's decision between Sanchez de Lozada and Manfred Reyes Villa will represent a crucial moment in the country's modern history.

Whoever is chosen as leader will replace interim President Jorge Quiroga, who had been an enthusiast for market reforms since taking office upon the resignation of the late President Hugo Banzer. Congress's decision essentially will reflect a choice between sustaining free markets or reverting to policies of governmental economic intervention. The new president must also address the concerns of the cocaleros. The direction in which he moves to control coca cultivation and processing will have a great effect on the future role of the widely condemned U.S.-funded Expeditionary Task Force as well as the constitutional rights of Bolivians.

- This analysis was prepared by Sarah Stokes, COHA research group.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policymakers."

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